Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Local Food Infrastructure, Cont.

Regarding the New York Times article about slaughterhouse shortages I posted about Monday, Ezra Klein points to an article at Grist. I guess it did occur to someone before now, it's just that nobody listened to him. On the bright side, Philpott does seem slightly encouraged by Vilsack being aware of the problem and devoting some (minimal) resources towards it.

Deadline

Trying to finish up some analysis for someone that has got me too occupied to blog at all... but I've got a post about some empanadas we made this weekend in the works that I hope to put up tonight or tomorrow morning. You can see the pictures here.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Teabonics

via John Cole

A flickr set dedicated to misspelled protest signs at Tea Party rallies. Many of the misspellings are innocuous... and who am I to criticize anyone's spelling? However if you are going to call other people stupid or illiterate, it's probably a good idea to proofread your giant sign.

Also? The word "Teabonics" is pure win.

Clarified Butter, Cont.

Apropos of the hash browns post I made last week, David Lebovitz has a nice illustrated "How To" post about clarified butter. He says a jar will last 3 to 6 months in the refrigerator.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Science of Truffles

More than you ever wanted to know about truffles, including this:
Last, there are the truffle flies which lay their eggs in the truffle. From the fungus’s perspective, the insects are just another way of spreading its spores. So it attracts them by releasing anisole and veratrole, two insect pheromones, when the truffle has reached maturity. Truffles can often be detected by looking for congregations of truffle flies.

Don’t the fly’s eggs and larvae degrade the edibility of the truffle? It seems the opposite is the case. “If collected at late maturation stages, the truffles will likely carry eggs and larvae — adding proteins and aroma to the truffle,” Dr. Martin said.

Does that mean truffles aren't vegan?

It seems like this should have occurred to somebody before now

From the New York Times:
In what could be a major setback for America’s local-food movement, championed by so-called locavores, independent farmers around the country say they are forced to make slaughter appointments before animals are born and to drive hundreds of miles to facilities, adding to their costs and causing stress to livestock.

As a result, they are scaling back on plans to expand their farms because local processors cannot handle any more animals.

“It’s pretty clear there needs to be attention paid to this,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in an interview. “Particularly in the Northeast, where there is indeed a backlog and lengthy wait for slaughter facilities.”

Barry Estabrook had an article about the slaughterhouse abattoir problem in the Northeast back in January, and he argued for a relaxation of the rules on "custom slaughter", which he explained thusly:
He is a freelancer, traveling from farm to farm, killing cattle and hogs and transporting their gutted carcasses to a nearby facility to be cut into parts, wrapped, and frozen. As a means for converting a living steer into meat, the practice has a lot going for it. For one thing, it is as humane as killing an animal can be.
However, "custom slaughter" doesn't have USDA approval, so selling the meat is illegal. A bit of a problem that, but I can certainly see why the Department of Agriculture might have some questions about quality control in that situation. However, from the New York Times article, it seems there is a "mobile" option that is basically a tiny slaughterhouse abattoir on wheels "with a U.S.D.A.-approved butcher and inspector aboard."

Obviously that's got to be pretty expensive to operate, and I have to wonder if there isn't some middle ground to be reached. The NYT mentions a "state inspected" slaughterhouse, where the meat can't be sold across state lines... could "custom slaughter" be certified/inspected in such a way to meet those regulations? I imagine most farmers in Vermont are going to want to sell to all of New England not just within state borders, but it's supposed to be local right? Seems like it might be way to make local meat a bit cheaper and more accessible.

photo by flickr user deCadmus used under a Creative Commons license

Friday, March 26, 2010

USB Drives for the Xbox 360

Good news for the very tiny, and always bursting at the seams, hard disk drive on my 360. They're only allowing up to 32 GB (in the form of 2 16 GB USB sticks) though... which is a bummer... I guess they're not giving up on the scheme of trying to get people to buy their ridiculously overpriced HDDs. But still, 16 or 32 gigs is better than nothing.

Rachel Maddow lives in Western Mass?

That's pretty cool. Also? Not running against Scott Brown in 2012.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Most Depressing Black Market Ever

via Kevin Drum,

North Korea after a disastrous currency revaluation:
One North Korean woman interviewed said common laborers under the new system were making about 2,500 won per month, barely more than $1 at the new exchange rates prevailing on the black market. Cooking oil is a luxury, so unaffordable that people buy only a few grams at a time in small plastic bags.
I imagine it's not all fast cars and caviar for the Canola dealer.

Hell No You Can't

More saltiness on Chimpanzee Tea Party... oh well... but, once again, if it's fine for the floor of the House of Representatives I guess it's cool here. If you're familiar with that Will.i.am Obama video (and who isn't?), this mash up featuring House Minority Leader John Boehner is pretty awesome:

I had heard he flipped out on the floor and was all yell-y, but I didn't realize he was that crazy.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Housing and Transportation Affordability






H+T Affordability Index: Boston, MA--NH: Comparing Housing Costs, % Income for Renters to Housing + Transportation Costs, % Income for Renters


The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index is an innovative tool that measures the true affordability of housing based on its location.


© Copyright 2003-10 Center for Neighborhood Technology
2125 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 · Tel: (773) 278-4800 · Fax: (773) 278-3840

Above is the area surrounding Porter Square in Cambridge, MA... where I live... with the rental costs on the left, and the rental costs plus transportation on the right... all compared to national median income. It's not the best widget in the world, so you might want to click on the link if you're curious... but basically in either case, darker is worse in regards to affordability. That is, people are paying a larger percentage of their income to housing or housing/transportation.

So, when compared to the rest of the country... Porter Square is decidedly not affordable to rent an apartment in. This would surprise nobody. However, compared to other renters in the region, it's really not so bad:






H+T Affordability Index: Boston, MA--NH: Comparing Housing Costs, % Income for Renters to Housing + Transportation Costs, % Income for Renters


The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index is an innovative tool that measures the true affordability of housing based on its location.


© Copyright 2003-10 Center for Neighborhood Technology
2125 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 · Tel: (773) 278-4800 · Fax: (773) 278-3840

And of course when you factor in the low costs of transportation with living right next to a Red Line and Commuter Rail stop, it's even better.

Now, what if we were looking to move out of the city and buy a place?





H+T Affordability Index: Boston, MA--NH: Comparing Housing Costs, % Income for Owners to Housing + Transportation Costs, % Income for Owners


The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index is an innovative tool that measures the true affordability of housing based on its location.


© Copyright 2003-10 Center for Neighborhood Technology
2125 W North Ave, Chicago, IL 60647 · Tel: (773) 278-4800 · Fax: (773) 278-3840

There are wide swaths of yellow, where people are paying less than 30% of their income on housing... but when you add in transportation costs (not to mention the mental agony of a Boston commute), all of a sudden, it's not quite so affordable anymore.

It's a fun thing to play with... you can do all sorts of comparisons... from rental costs to CO2 emissions... and it covers 330 metro areas, so chances are that yours is in it.

Awesome

via Jonathan Chait:
For the reference, go here. I try not to curse on my blog, but if the VP can drop an F-bomb on a historic occasion so can I... at least in picture form. It also has the joyous side effect of making this classic Onion story seem all the more accurate.

Slaughterhouse Fight!

From the New York Times, an article about high end beef upstart Creekstone Farms:
Out of nowhere, seemingly, Creekstone Farms Premium Beef has challenged established red-meat royals like Niman Ranch, selling as much as four times more meat, by some estimates. Creekstone meat is served at many of the city’s high-profile restaurants, including Babbo, Balthazar, CafĂ© Boulud, China Grill, Del Posto, Pastis, Porterhouse New York and the Standard Grill, as well as the Shake Shack burger joints. The newcomer mesmerized Marea, Tabla and Primehouse New York into printing its name on their menus.

What does Niman Ranch think of all this?
“We have better genetics and husbandry than any of our competitors,” said John A. Tarpoff, a vice president at Niman, which has offices in Denver.

Oh snap! Well, how about Fleisher’s?
Some standardbearers of the sustainable-meat movement, like Joshua Applestone of Fleisher’s Grass-Fed and Organic Meats, a butcher in Kingston, N.Y., sniff at Creekstone’s boxed “factory meat.” Pasture-fed animals bought from local farms are “healthier for customers and better for the animals, the small farmers and the small slaughterhouses,” Mr. Applestone said.

Even butchers can be catty, eh?

The article is actually a fairly in-depth examination of the the high end beef industry in general... including a full description of the slaughterhouse process, so be warned about that... but I found the economics of it to be particularly interesting. Worth a read.

It's my belief that if "natural" (no hormones, no antibiotics, vegetarian feed) meat is to become mainstream, it will be through industrial operations like Creekstone’s... not your local farm. Which is not to say I think local foods aren't really important, just that they're not sufficient to replace our existing system. Economies of scale need to be a part of it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Inherent Contradictions of Local Food

Barry Estabrook has a pretty interesting, if short, review of The Town That Food Saved over at The Atlantic. The book is about a former granite town, Hardwick Vermont, that had fallen on pretty hard times, and has since reinvented itself based on local food culture. To the author's credit, it doesn't sound like the book is quite the local food cheerleading exercise the title implies. Artisanal cheese and a co-op aren't a magic elixir for economically depressed small towns, and indeed there are some unanswered questions:
Undeniably, their efforts have brought 125 jobs to an area where every job counts. In doing so, they have created a vibrant, mutually supportive community centered on food. But Hewitt is also well aware of the ironies and shortcomings of the locavore trend and its upscale cachet. In a town of 3,200 that still has a median income 25 percent below the state's average and an unemployment rate 40 percent above it, real locals are more likely to buy processed cheese from the Grand Union supermarket than pick up a piece of artisanal blue cheese from the farmers' market, and more likely to dine on $3.38 chicken fried rice at the Yummy Wok than venture across main Street into Claire's, a "community supported restaurant" that features local fare and offers nine-dollar vegetable tagines and 24-dollar grass-fed steaks that can be washed down with a selection of decidedly non-local wines.

Sounds like an interesting book.

photo by flickr user trrpngirl used under Creative Commons license

Monday, March 22, 2010

Two days to make hash browns?

But they sure do sound good. The secret is apparently: clarified butter and pre-boiled potatoes. I feel like I've been hearing a lot about clarified butter (i.e. ghee) these days... so maybe I should start keeping some on hand? From what I understand, clarified butter will last nearly forever... since you're removing the milk solids that go bad... so there's no reason not to make a more significant quantity ahead of time. Though then there's still the matter of the potatoes... and I can't think of any time I had left over boiled potatoes on hand. If I'm boiling potatoes, it's to get them into some other form, like mashed potatoes (or hash browns I guess).

Oh well... I guess it will still take two days. But hopefully worth it?

Well that was fun

As anyone who has glanced at a newspaper this morning knows, the Senate HCR bill passed the House last night 219 votes to 212 in a scene you would not exactly call a bipartisan love fest. After the debacle of the Scott Brown election and the despondency that immediately followed; this feels pretty damn good. A better human being than me would not engage in rank schadenfreude... especially given how recently the shoe was on the other foot... but my oh my, don't wingnut tears taste delicious?

Anyway... Obama should sign the Senate bill in the next couple of days, and then the Senate votes on the reconciliation fixes (where 50 votes are needed, and allegedly already committed). Obama then signs that, and it's officially over... but make no mistake, health care/insurance reform is a done deal right now. While I expect the GOP to stay unified in its obstructionism, all of the reconciliation fixes heading to the Senate are quite popular and hard to vote against... so it shouldn't be hard to hold 50 Democrat votes together.

Only 14 months of insanity... and yet it felt like 14 years. But, yes, totally worth it... even if it doesn't give every liberal a pony... since it's the most progressive piece of legislation we've passed since LBJ's Great Society. I'm not sure I'm ready to crown Obama yet, but certainly I can't think of a more effective Speaker than Nancy Pelosi.

Also, if you're curious as to what will change in the first year (since most of the big stuff doesn't kick in until 2014), Ezra has a rundown. My guess as to what's the most important for November? The "the ability to keep kids on their parents' insurance until they're 26"... that's going to be pretty popular in suburbia, no?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Osso Buco

Making osso buco this week was the first time I've actually ever had veal. Growing up decidedly middle class (with a mother who didn't like red meat), an expensive cut like veal shanks was never entering our kitchen. Further, even as my palate was expanding in college and after, I had so many vegetarian friends that eating baby animals seemed a little gauche even to me (I was/am a pretty unrepentant meat eater). Veal (along with foie gras), is something I have in my head as being "especially" cruel... and certainly the standard practices of 20 years ago were that indeed (and are still favored in the US and Continental Europe unfortunately) ... but nowadays you can buy veal from calves that are raised much more humanely. As long as you avoid the bone white classic "milk fed" veal, and instead go for the pink/rosy veal your Whole Foods or high end butcher is selling... you're getting veal from a calf that's walking around in a pen and has some grass or grain in its diet at least (ask your butcher to be sure, of course). Another factor is that if you do dairy in your diet, you should realize that the male calves of the diary herd have to go somewhere. That, of course, is one of the main reasons for being a vegan... even if you don't think milking a cow is cruel, the entire practice has repercussions on down the line... and if you're drinking milk or eating cheese, there is some baby cow blood on your hands no matter what. Not saying that to turn anybody vegan, but I am just sayin'.

So... the moral implications of osso buco have been laid out, and you're either fine with them or not... and I admit it still weirds me out a little... but let us move on to the actual cooking of osso buco. The nice thing about the classic recipe is that you don't really need to make much effort to scale it per person. It's basically just as easy to cook it for two as it is ten (pan size permitting)... just buy as many veal shanks as you want servings. You might have to add more or less broth before you put it in the oven to make sure your shanks are "almost covered"... but otherwise proportions of everything else doesn't really need to change, since you'll just adjust the consistency of the braising liquid once it comes out of the oven anyway.

I followed the Cooking for Engineers recipe with no significant substitutions or alterations. The main thing I did differently is that once the osso buco came out of the oven and I had thickened the sauce, I put the shank pieces back in the pot and let it all cool down before putting it into the fridge to serve the next day. Allegedly it's actually superior the day after (and reheats really really well as long as you keep it in its braising liquid)... but the actual reason I put off serving it is that I was making it on a weeknight and didn't want to eat after 10 pm because of a cooking project(again). Regardless of your reasons, if you do decide to serve it the next day, you can scoop off the solidified fat and bring it all back up to a simmer (covered) over medium heat. While that is going, you can make your gremolata and your side (traditionally saffron risotto). Just like Mr. Ruhlman says, you do not want to skip the gremolata. It's hugely important to balance the very very rich taste of veal.

In fact, I was pretty overwhelmed by the richness of the osso buco at first... and wasn't sure I really liked it that much. I had been too lazy to make the risotto, and was surprisingly stingy with the gremolata, which I think made a whole shank piece too much to take. The lemon, parsley, and saffron in the gremolata and risotto bring much needed brightness and freshness to the plate... or even in the dead of winter osso buco might come across as heavy.

So I liked it, but I don't think I'd call myself a huge veal fan at this point. Probably a little too fatty and rich for me to have all that often... but I'm glad I made it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Oh... I always wondered what happened to The Roadhouse

Anna sent me a link to this Dig review:
When David Ciccolo, owner of Publick House, ventured to spice up Brookline with a barbecue joint called The Roadhouse, neighbors complained the kitchen's smell was overpowering. So Ciccolo packed up the smokers and launched a Cajun/Mexican menu ... which also fell flat. In February, after fewer than two years in business, Roadhouse closed its doors for a week-long metamorphosis. Touting a local-centric menu of classic American comfort food with an "artisanal" twist—and of course, Ciccolo's signature craft beer selection—American Craft opened on February 24th to hopeful buzz from fans disappointed by Roadhouse's demise. I was among them, and dropped in on a Tuesday night, eager to see the revamp.
We live across the river from Brookline now, and don't get over as often as we should, but (if I'm remembering correctly) they were renovating the old Vinny Testa's into The Roadhouse about the time we were moving... it was exciting at the time... (a barbecue joint from the Publick House guys!?) but it got bad reviews right out of the gate, and we never made it before they had already given up on the entire barbecue plan. Friends who sampled the Cajun/Mexican menu replacement were pretty blah about it as well, so we basically just gave up on it with a "Well, at least we still have Publick House."

After the disappointment of the dining experience at Lord Hobo, we're definitely in the market for an craft beer place with great food... sounds like the aptly named American Craft is worth a shot. I mean, hey, they have a tofu steak on the menu... what could be more perfect?

Happy St. Patrick's Day

I'm not wearing green, I won't be having a boiled dinner, and I most definitely won't be going near an Irish bar in Boston (all of them). But... uhm... go Irish people!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Miscellany and the Just Cause 2 Demo

I'm sort of short of things to blog about at the moment... my go-to sites for food writing (New York Times, The Atlantic Food Channel, and Serious Eats) don't have anything that sparks my interest... and while I did cook some Osso Buco last night, I didn't eat it... as Cook's Illustrated says that it stores well in the braising liquid, and it was getting late. I'll reheat it in the liquid and make the gremolata and risotto tonight, but that's a blog post for later in the week. Anna cooked a really good tempeh creole thing from The Conscious Cook, but she did all the work for that... so I don't have any insight other than that it was tasty and seemed to be a pretty involved process.

So anyway... that long intro is just to say that the only thing I have to say is that I played the Just Cause 2 demo a bunch this weekend and... it was really fun! Definitely worth downloading for PC or Xbox if you like sandbox action games. There is a 30 minute time limit, but that's plenty of time to do a fair amount of damage, and I enjoy it so much I find myself just starting over once the time limit is up. Never heard of the first one, and I'm not a huge sandbox action guy (I tend to like rails and stories), but the demo is pretty awesome.

Here's a really long (11 minutes) YouTube of the gameplay:

That basically captures the essence of the demo (though this looks like it might be an earlier build)... you can do a sample mission, but it's not really that exciting... it's more about base jumping, grappling people to compressed gas canisters, and blowing stuff up.

Worth checking out if you haven't already.

In other video game news, an expansion pack for Dragon Age Origins is out today. While I've beaten the first game with one character (Male Dwarf Commoner Rogue), I want to finish it again with a second (Female Human Noble Warrior) before I continue on into the expansion. I'm near the end with her, but since I have cooking duties I doubt I'll make it through tonight... certainly by the weekend I hope to be immersed in Awakening.

Monday, March 15, 2010

SNL on Massa

via Ta-Nehisi

I should probably feel guilty about being entertained by the absurdity of the Eric Massa debacle, but whatevs. Jerry Sienfeld and Seth Meyers have it all in a nut shell.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Mathematical Model for Zombie Attack

While somewhat old news (though I had never seen it), this paper on modeling zombie attack(PDF) is completely serious (OK, maybe a bit tongue-in-cheek), and the modeling is quite sophisticated... so it's super awesome. Here's the abstract:
Zombies are a popular figure in pop culture/entertainment and they are usually portrayed as being brought about through an outbreak or epidemic. Consequently, we model a zombie attack, using biological assumptions based on popular zombie movies. We introduce a basic model for zombie infection, determine equilibria and their stability, and illustrate the outcome with numerical solutions. We then refine the model to introduce a latent period of zombification, whereby humans are infected, but not infectious, before becoming undead. We then modify the model to include the effects of possible quarantine or a cure. Finally, we examine the impact of regular, impulsive reductions in the number of zombies and derive conditions under which eradication can occur. We show that only quick, aggressive attacks can stave off the doomsday scenario: the collapse of society as zombies overtake us all.
As a special bonus: Matlab code for implementing the model is at the end of the paper.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Surprise! Slate Thinks Canning Overrated

Anyone who's been around the internet a few times knows that Slate has a tendency to be contrarian to point of self-parody... in fact, it's such a well known meme that it has become tedious to point it out. However, since I think the idea of pickling is pretty neat... and have done it once and twice... and hope to try canning/pickling some of the bounty of the Maine garden with Anna and her Mom this summer... I felt a somewhat silly need to respond. A need that's all the more silly, since a read of the critique reveals there is no there there:
But don't be fooled: Along with independence there is plenty of self-congratulation. These culinary trophies are emblematic of a project-based food relationship that we urban food junkies are prone to indulge these days: athletic all-weekend bouts of cheesemaking, or bacon curing, or jam and pickle making are so much more bloggable and boastworthy than making a decent brown-bag lunch five days in a row (I should know—I'm occasionally susceptible to such fits of showy industriousness, most often guided by Christine Ferber's gem, Mes Confitures.)
It's hard to imagine how you can write about things you do and not be open to the criticism of being self-congratulatory... I guess unless you always wrote about the really dumb and stupid things that you've done... all the stuff that you're really embarrassed and ashamed by. That would probably work. Maybe I'd get more page views that way? I've done some pretty embarrassing things, after all. Let me think about that for a second... No.

OK then.

And personally, if I got it together enough to rock a brown bag lunch everyday I would totally blog about, and I would also totally congratulate myself for it.
And let's not kid ourselves that home-canning is particularly frugal. It's not impossible to save money by home preserving your food, but it takes a little investment to get set up for it, and you certainly won't cut costs by canning $5-a-pound heirloom tomatoes. Without a source of truly inexpensive produce (like vegetables you grow yourself), you'll find cheaper products in grocery stores. (The more convincing money-saving argument is that canning keeps down entertainment costs: An evening of making and packing picallilly is a cheerful way to pass time with friends, and it might substitute for the cost of a dinner out.)
So if you don't have your own garden, you're not going to save any money. Is there honestly any urban foodie who thinks otherwise? That I'm going to go and can the extra veggies from a CSA because it's so much cheaper than buying pickles at the super market? C'mon now. We may in fact be gullible, but I'd like to think we're not that stupid.

The strangest part of the article is that she only references obliquely the "real" moral justification one could make for canning the extras from your local CSA share in your Williamsburg apartment... that it lowers your carbon footprint. Dickerson seems to imply that it's an overwrought angle, but never engages it directly (except to say that environmentalists aren't coming after Claussen). I don't imagine it makes a huge difference, but I can't see why you'd bother to try and talk people out of it if they're interested.

And of course she doesn't. She ends by saying canning is pretty neat actually... just not for all those damn dirty hippie reasons... somebody once wrote in the intro to a pickling book she read once.

So there... I guess?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Obligatory Iron Man 2 Trailer Post


I didn't read Iron Man as a kid, so I can't say I'm invested enough in the characters to even possibly get upset at who's playing whom and all that... but I admit to not really seeing Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow. But who knows? Definitely a must see movie for me, even if Black Widow was being played by Betty White (especially if?).

And I guess the Mickey Rourke character is some sort of amalgam of Blacklash/Whiplash and Crimson Dynamo? I'm pretty sure Blacklash wasn't Russian.

Macs to be Steam-powered

via Wired, some interesting news for gaming on the Mac:
Bringing Steam to Mac will give gamers several cross-platform benefits, Newell said.
  • If players already own the PC versions of Valve games, they’ll get Mac versions at no extra charge through a feature called Steam Play.
  • By using the Steam Cloud feature that the company introduced in 2008, players can save in-progress games online, then call up those saved games no matter which version they’re playing. If you’re playing Half-Life 2 on your home PC but then head out on the road with your MacBook, you can continue your game-in-progress.
“We looked at a variety of methods to get our games onto the Mac and in the end decided to go with native versions rather than emulation,” said John Cook, director of Steam development, in Monday’s press release.

“We are treating the Mac as a tier-1 platform so all of our future games will release simultaneously on Windows, Mac and the Xbox 360,” Cook said. “Updates for the Mac will be available simultaneously with the Windows updates. Furthermore, Mac and Windows players will be part of the same multiplayer universe, sharing servers, lobbies and so forth. We fully support a heterogeneous mix of servers and clients. The first Mac Steam client will be the new generation currently in beta testing on Windows.”

We are an interfaith PC vs. Mac household... and I buy all my PC games via Steam these days... so this possibly a quite cool development for us. I suspect that the ability to have games on multiple computers will work the same way it does on PCs: while we can have a copy of the game on both a PC and Mac, you'll only be able to be logged into your Steam account on one of them at a time... so no free multiplayer or ability to play games on my Steam account simultaneously. Still... can't really complain about the price of "free" can you?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Busy Doing Science

I don't have any "FUTURE Posts!" (as Atrios would say) prepped up and ready to go like I would have hoped... and now have 4 studies in 5 days to do in the lab, so I'm not sure how prolific I'll be this week... I'll try to do some food related posts in the evening when I'm home, but I've been terribly lazy and haven't cooked anything besides frozen pizza in over a week... so we'll see.

Monday, March 8, 2010

"The Never Ending Game"

Kotaku on the strong sales figures for Borderlands:
Traditionally, Hellquist said, a game sells really well for the first two months and then those sales tail off, slimming down until it's just a trickle. But Borderlands' tail has been surprisingly thick.

"We have been happy with the tail of the sales," Hellquist said. "They are strong even though the game is four to five months old now."

That's because every time Gearbox unveils and releases a new expansion for Borderlands, people go out and buy the game, sometimes rebuy it after completing and selling it back to a store.

In Borderlands, players take on the role of one of four playable archetypical characters as they strive to survive the harsh planet of Pandora while increasing their skills and discovering new weapons. The game nicely blends the best of a first-person shooter with elements of role-playing games. To date, Gearbox has sold three $10 expansion packs for the $60 game. The expansion packs added a zombie island, new places to fight other players and, in the latest expansion, a new plot and missions that adds as much as ten hours to the game's original 25 hour experience.

I'm usually completely terrible about impulse control and video games. I'll buy a well regarded game even if I know I don't have any time to play it, and I'd be better off waiting for it to end up in the bargain bin. Of course, the one time I'm disciplined and decide to wait for a game to go on sale its some sort of freak of nature game that is still selling great 5 months out and releases DLC every other week... and thus never ever goes on sale. They've at least gotta release a bundle on Steam at some point, right?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Cutting against the grain

J. Kenji Lopez-Alt does a great job of explaining what the "grain" of meat is, and how you go about cutting against it. When I first started cooking, I didn't find the concept terribly intuitive... and probably ended up with some tougher pieces of meat than necessary due to my cluelessness... so it's nice to know there who don't assume we know all this stuff already.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Not my Choptank

I've never been to the restaurant in question, but my Dad has a house on the actual river... and in general I think it's good form to highlight the awesome sauce that is Sam Sifton's food writing. What a revelation that guy is. Here's a snippet:
Choptank the restaurant opened this winter on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, taking the watershed as its muse and Baltimore as its butler. The restaurant evokes the Chesapeake region in the way that dorm rooms at Johns Hopkins do: Duck Head khakis in the dresser and lacrosse sticks leaning against the desk, postcards from Rehoboth Beach tacked to the wall along with the covering board from grandfather’s sloop, a thrift-store oil painting, sconces from mom.

So there ain’t no pit beef here, hon. Too low-class. No steamed crabs on paper tablecloths, either. (Though they say come summer.) You can’t buy a can of Natty Boh beer. (The company doesn’t distribute up north.) There is a fine Ostrowski’s Polish sausage sitting with its pretzel brother on a plate, garlicky as a Pigtown housewife, but there is no John Waters to Choptank, much less Avon Barksdale or Stringer Bell. The restaurant’s vibe is suburban, as safe as Cal Ripken.
Heh... that's the good stuff. I guess it's not that crazy to look forward to reading reviews of restaurants that I'm never going to eat at... indeed, for food tourism articles and shows, that's the main draw... but it still surprises me. I have nothing against Frank Bruni, but Sifton was definitely a huge step up in my humble opinion.

Speaker FAIL

No seriously. They failed. Meaning: "stopped working"... after a power outage two nights ago. They're the old Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 computer speakers that were discontinued 5 or so years ago... so not exactly under warranty... in fact they're so out of warranty, the model that replaced them has been discontinued for ages. I bought them almost 9 years ago when I spent more than I could really afford on a bleeding edge Falcon Northwest computer. As of yesterday morning, sound was no longer coming out of the satellites, but the power the control unit was fine, and headphones plugged into either the onboard sound or the control unit were great... after some troubleshooting and internet searching, I discovered that this appears to be a somewhat common problem with the BASH amp in the subwoofer. There's apparently a guy who will repair and upgrade the amp for around $120 (plus shipping?), but it doesn't seem all of his customers are pleased about the turnaround time. I presume any number of local electronics shops could perform a similar service, if not with as much experience. But then... how long until they fail again?

Another option is to abandon the whole "PC speakers with the amp in the subwoofer" concept, and go with separate components. A quick glance suggests I could get a reasonably well regarded home theater receiver for something on the order of $200-$300. Components obviously make upgrades and repairs easier, but I don't really want all those different pieces to be honest... I like having everything together in one package... that's the point of having a multimedia PC in the first place. I would be able to keep my satellites and probably get by fine without a subwoofer or an amplifier, but the satellites are the cheapest part of the package, so it's not really all that enticing.

A third possibility would be going down to a 2.1 system, which would cost about the same as it would to repair my ProMedia's amp and save some space and wiring. I live in a small Cambridge apartment in a building of professionals who need to get up in the morning... so it's not like I need a system that can really crank it... but I really like 5.1 when I'm watching a movie. While I've heard good things about I fear I would be really disappointed with the performance and then somehow end up with three sets of speakers.

Ultimately I've decided to just spend $400 again to get the 500W 5.1 Logitech system... and just hope I can get another 9 years out of a different high end computer speaker system. I guess I'll just give away the Klipsch ProMedia with the warning that you'll have to fix the amp to get it to work... since fixing it and selling it doesn't sound like it would net me any/much money.

Won't get here until Monday though, so I have a weekend (with Anna visiting her mother naturally) of using headphones to play games and movies ahead of me.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Mmmm... Mom, could I have a second helping of the Easter Bunny please?

The New York Times on Hip-Hop Cuisine(ouch):
In an age when diners scoop marrow from roasted beef shins and dissect the feet of pigs raised by people they’ve met, rabbit certainly seems like the right meat at the right time.

American rabbit is typically raised on smaller farms, not in some giant industrial rabbit complex. The meat is lean and healthy, and makes an interesting break from chicken. For people learning to butcher at home, a rabbit is less daunting to cut up than a pig or a goat. And those who are truly obsessed with knowing where their food comes from can raise it themselves.

Still, it’s a rabbit, the animal entire generations know as the star of children’s books and Saturday-morning cartoons, and as a classroom mascot.

I have very fond memories of an angora rabbit (Chester) my dad raised with a collie puppy (Ginger a.k.a. Devil Spawn) when I was a kid... so I admit I'm one of those people who talks a good game about "slow food" and "knowing where your food comes from" who is a little bit weirded out about the idea of eating a childhood pet.

Though to be fair, after Chester died, the subsequent rabbits my dad got were pretty lame and not really all that awesome. While raising Chester alongside a puppy seemed to instill in him a devil-may-care attitude uncommon in most prey animals... the more conventional rabbits seem to emanate more of OHMIGODPLEASEDONTKILLME!!! vibe all the time, that was distinctly less fun. So maybe I wouldn't mind eating those lame-o rabbits. Who can say?

I'm honestly not bothered by any charges of hypocrisy from the Jonathan Safran Foer wing of the vegetarians... hey, I don't like broccoli either, so what... but it is something I want to get over. So before winter ends I may post about some braised Easter Bunny... you have been warned.

photo by flickr user chronographia used under a Creative Commons license

Saveur's 1st Annual Best Food Blog Awards

Shockingly, Chimpanzee Tea Party didn't make the cut... but it looks like they've got nine interesting categories, and several nice looking Food Blogs I've yet to steal recipes from. Chimpanzee favorites Smitten Kitchen and 101 Cookbooks are well represented... but I'm really excited to check out the sites I'm not familiar with. A good excuse to update my RSS reader!

Into the Fog

My friend Gregory Scott... who has known me since I was born, and my mother and father much longer... is working on a memoir about his life called Into the Fog. From the website:
I left my job as a bartender at Club Mitchell in 1983, a sleazy Lesbian bar in a bad section of Baltimore, to become public relations director for a major garment manufacturer, London Fog. Having majored in graphic design and photography, holding former jobs in these professions I was little prepared for the world of corporate life. I started living a little bit faster, then found out I had a little less time to go. I was HIV positive. It' been a great ride! The chassis is beat up, but the engine is still chugging, much like my red '92 VW cabriolet. It's in the shop a lot, but when it's out, life is right pretty.
So if that sounds interesting to you at all (or frankly even if it doesn't) be sure to click through to his site to ratchet up his page views.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Alton Brown's Pressure Cooker Chili

We've had our Fagor Duo pressure cooker(s) for about two weeks now, and Alton Brown's chili recipe is the third thing I've made in it. I haven't posted about any of my previous attempts at pressure cooking since I was still getting a feel for the process... what constituted a "steady gentle stream of steam" wasn't exactly clear to me in the beginning, and that uncertainty led to some disintegrated cauliflower mush... so I thought maybe I ought to figure that out before I led anyone astray with my musings.

The basic physics of a pressure cooker are pretty simple... higher pressure makes the boiling point of water higher, which cooks your food faster, since... under normal pressure... no matter how vigorously you're boiling that water, it can't get hotter than 212... while at 15 psi it's something like 257 degrees. The steam trapped inside also helps with heat conduction compared to a higher temperature oven, but it's been too many years since physics class for me to effectively explain that angle. In the end, it suffices to say that it's a fast way to cook... but unlike a microwave, it's not functionally different than steaming or simmering... just much, much faster... so it's something professional chefs use, especially when time is of the essence.

I'm still figuring the thing out, but the problem would seem to be when you are looking for a very precise level of done-ness. It takes several minutes to come up to pressure (for the chili, I timed it as 3 minutes for the "at pressure button" to pop up and 3 more minutes for pressure to get high enough to vent steam)... and even the "quick release" pressure drop takes a minute or two... so there is not really an efficient way to check on what you are cooking. Presumably you get a feel for that sort of thing with a little practice... and if a dish is slightly undercooked, you could just finish it on the stove top without returning to high pressure... but I do wonder about the real utility of cooking vegetables in a pressure cooker. Maybe I'm just gun shy after disintegrating that cauliflower, but vegetables cook so fast under normal conditions and are so easy to overcook... it just doesn't make a whole lot of sense to pressure cook them to me. However, I must admit that more testing is needed.


Now, on to the chili recipe. It's explained quite well over at Food Network, so I won't transcribe it here... but I do have a couple of notes. It's not terribly spicy by default... I went for 3 chipotles and a medium-hot habenero salsa and still could have stood a fair bit more heat. I used an ancho chile powder to add some complexity, but obviously not everyone can find that easily. Dried chiles are pretty ubiquitous, however, and homemade chili powder is not hard to make... it something that can be done well in advance, and well worth it in my opinion.

The 2 teaspoons of oil to brown the meat seemed like a typo, but it worked out fine... with a pretty intense deglaze. Lots of bits to scrape up, but they weren't burned by any means.

I wasn't sure what was going to happen with the tortilla chips, but they completely disintegrated... which makes sense when you realize they are a substitute for the thickening power of corn meal used in more traditional recipes.

I say it compares quite favorably to those "more traditional recipes" I've made before, and it would be even impressive if I'd had some homemade chili powder on hand.

So that's that. Not sure I'd buy a pressure cooker just to make this chili... but if you've got one, I wouldn't skip making it.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Dating Advice in Graph Form

Ezra Klein pointed out the weird awesomeness that is OK Cupid's blog, last month, but I read the post he linked... was intrigued... but since I'm not single, I promptly forgot about it. A guest blogger at Sully's place however has reminded me, and I simply must link this. I didn't even get through it all, but it's got like 20 figures at least (including several java widgets!)... and certainly more than ten thousand words... all making the case for 20 something guys giving 30 something women a chance.

What an strange and interesting data set to work with.

Oh yeah...

Gratz Canucks! I didn't see the game because I thought the Americans were going to get blown out by a vengeful and superior Canadian team... but it sounds like it was one for the ages.

The State of Health Insurance Reform

Jon Cohn has the goods. It comes down to finding 217 216 (UPDATE: See below) votes in the House. If you haven't been paying attention to the daily ins and outs (and why would you; sausage making is an ugly business), you'll likely find this surprising... since it's always the recalcitrant and feckless Senate with it's effective 60 vote supra majority rule that is the roadblock. However, since both chambers have passed legislation... and my adoptive state shamed itself by electing Scott Brown... the plan is for the House to pass the Senate bill, and then for agreed upon amendments to be passed via budget reconciliation (which only needs 50 Senate votes plus the VP). This means the most annoying "centrist" members of the Senate aren't a factor, but in the House we've lost three Dems... John Murtha (RIP), Robert Wexler (retired), and Neil Abercrombie (running for Hawaii governor)... as well as their single GOP vote (Joseph Cao). So out of the 220 that originally voted for it, they're down to at least 216... and maybe worse depending on how Pro-Life Dems like Bart Stupak feel about the abortion language, which is more moderate in the Senate bill and can't be changed via budget reconciliation. There are 39 "No" votes from conservative Democrats that are still out there to be swayed back, but it's impossible to know what they are thinking right now. From a "political cover" perspective, voting no again is going to be the most appealing... but not passing anything is political suicide for the whole party, so somebody is going to have to take one for the team.

So should you be optimistic or pessimistic? Well Jon Cohn says there's reason for both:

Still, I know people on the inside who have their doubts. While they think 217 votes is doable, they're not sure either the administration or House leadership are going to do it. They worry Pelosi may not have enough credibility with centrists, particularly after she pushed them to take a politically painful vote on climate change legislation last year. And they worry that the administration still has a habit of sending mixed signals at precisely the wrong moment--like it did last week, right before the bipartisan meeting, when stories of a fallback "plan b" circulated last week.

So there is reason for hope and there is reason for anxiety. Really, it all depends on how you look at that inkblot.

Personally, I'm optimistic... but then I thought there was no way Coakley was going to lose, so my political prognostication record is not exactly stellar.

UPDATE: For anyone who wants an incredibly in-depth analysis of what the status of every House member is in regards to health insurance reform, check out this Campaign Diaries post.